The Fiction Writing Workshop: The “S” Word

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Every story needs a setting. A place where characters can hunker down, figure out what’s bugging them, and struggle their way to resolution. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife wouldn’t be the love story it is if Clare and Henry didn’t hang out at the Aragon in Chicago.

And Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage would be flat and lifeless if the Burmese jail cell in which Teza is imprisoned wasn’t described in such intimate, excruciating detail.

Yet whenever I ask students to write a scene from a story, their first drafts often feature characters floating around in a strange, airy vacuum.

The problem?

No setting. The characters may be talking, walking around, having great sex, drinking beer, and throwing vases at their mothers. They may even be having the most kick-ass, fur-flying tussle in literary history, but they’re not doing it in a place. People in the “real world” live, work, get screwed up, get unscrewed up, walk dogs, buy groceries, and go to school, in PLACES.

So do people in stories.

When I point this out, I usually get one of two reactions: 1) “Ooohhhh, I see” (and suddenly characters are traveling to Winnipeg in an ’82 Nissan 280ZX or eating dumplings in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco), or 2) “I don’t know where it takes place.”

But you do know. Really, you do. The thing is, before you even write the first draft, you see in your own beautiful, imaginative noggin where a story takes place. Maybe your first sight of the story-what I call the dominant image-is not a place, but a conversation between a couple about to break up and the thing that grabs you is the way the man’s lips quiver as his girlfriend puts the kibosh on their engagement. But wait! If you sit with that image, and look a little longer, you’ll see that the couple is in a booth in a coffee shop. And if you look even longer, letting things come into focus, you’ll discover that the coffee shop is in a small college town in Illinois. Setting grows from there.

See what I mean? Writing a story is your chance to travel anywhere in the world. Grab that opportunity, and whether your setting is a bathroom in a Phoenix gas station or a steamy kitchen in Tokyo, make it your own.

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